“Yes, I Know What A Gigabyte Is”: Let’s Talk About Sexism In The Tech Industry

When I lived in Paris, I taught and tutored English at a technology university. It had the same requirements as other French universities, but the only majors available were computer science related. And because of the location of many tech start-ups, all students had to maintain a certain level of English fluency. That’s where my job came in. My immediate boss went looking for exchange programs from the US, UK and other English-speaking areas of the world. From there he’d recruit as many women as he could for the position of SUSIE, a weird combination of tutor and teacher, responsible for teaching three classes a week on absolutely anything, as long as everyone spoke English the whole time. My roommate and I both did this job – it was easy, and both of us had previous teaching experience. We thought SUSIE stood for something, an acronym of some kind, but we were more interested in planning our epic spring break train trip through three countries than finding out what SUSIE actually stood for. One of my students eventually told me that it stood for nothing. It was just a “generic American girls’ name.” They didn’t call us tutors. They didn’t call us teachers. They called every single English-speaking woman in this position “Susie.” Many of my students, even my repeat ones, didn’t know my real name.

You see, most of the SUSIEs were young, fairly attractive women in their 20s – I’d estimate that about 98% of the SUSIEs were women. And this, my friends, was on purpose. Because most of the students were young college-aged men – I’d estimate about the same, 98%. In the semester I taught there, I remember having four different female students. Four. And I remember my immediate boss confessing that the selection of primarily female tutors was to entice the students to actually attend the English sessions that we taught. I also recall him saying that many of the very few male tutors were listed as female, so that his bosses didn’t ask him any questions about it. He may have been joking, I’m not sure. Either way, these things were said. And when word got around that I was gay, my attendance dropped.

I forget what I was supposed to be teaching, but one of my students told me (out of the blue, with no provocation) that homosexuality was a sin against God and that women belonged in the kitchen. I didn’t care if he was joking, or if he was just saying things to get a rise out of me. I stopped class, made everyone sit in a circle on the floor, and we had a Feminism 101 discussion (not one of the four female students was present in class that day). After talking about the basics of Feminism, I asked, “why do you think there aren’t more women enrolled here?” Most of the men didn’t really know. One said he would love to see more women enrolled here, that he was tired of hanging out with guys all the time. After all, who was he going to date? Another said that the women who were enrolled weren’t quality, and many agreed — they talked about one woman who slept with her project partners. They thought this was a tactic to make the men do more of the work while she skated through. And they all came to the conclusion that more women weren’t enrolled in this technology university because women, as a whole, weren’t interested in technology.

I asked if maybe they thought it had more to do with them discussing a woman’s sexual partners and discounting her ability when she dated anyone else enrolled at the university. Or if maybe it was because they saw the female students as simply someone to date and/or have sex with. Or perhaps there was a problem indicated by a SUSIE’s attendance directly correlating with the perceived likelihood that a student would get in her pants? I asked them to explain why I, or any of the other female SUSIEs, would be working at a technology university if we weren’t interested in technology?

I still could not convince them. At least not all of them. Perhaps one or two left that classroom thinking new thoughts about women in their tech university, but I still considered that class a failure.

Back in the U.S. I was working in a customer-facing IT position. One day my manager, also a woman, pulled me aside. “I have this guy here,” she said. “He stopped in because he saw women working here. And he can’t believe women work with computers and software, he couldn’t believe we hired them.” She paused. “I want you to help him. I don’t know what he wants yet.”

She introduced us – he was an older gentleman. He spent 15 minutes quizzing me. He’d point at me, his eyes narrowed. “Gigabytes,” he’d say. And I’d patiently define the term gigabytes for him. “RAM,” he’d continue. And so I defined that. Finally he was satisfied, “Oooh, you’re good!” he remarked, pleased. I asked him what he needed help with. “Oh no,” he said. “That was all.” He walked out of the store. He’d simply wanted to verify that women knew things about computers via his little verbal quiz.

I asked my manager later why she had done that. She replied that the gentleman needed a lesson not to walk into an establishment and say such dumb stuff about women in technology to women working in technology. I couldn’t argue with that, but I am still not convinced that it made any difference. Nor am I convinced that it’s every woman’s job in the tech industry to prove that she has the right to be there. What that little stunt unequivocally did was waste my time.

Both of these things happened four and five years ago. Our very own Taylor Hatmaker has an incident report that took place just last month. You might have followed the “forced resignation” (what I like to call a firing?) of Business Insider CTO Pax Dickinson as people finally caught on to the misogynist tweets he’s been firing off for years. Tweets like “Men have made the world such a safe and comfortable place that women now have the time to bitch about not being considered our equals.” Hatmaker had a brush with what I’ll dub “Feminist Critique As Invitation For Rapey Tweets”:

... I think you're doing the internet wrong, bro.

… I think you’re doing the internet wrong, bro.

That certainly isn’t a one-off – remember Adria Richards? At PyCon 2013, she received racist, sexist death threats on Twitter after reporting two developers for inappropriate language and sexist humor that violated the conference code of conduct. Oh, to be a woman on the internet, talking tech – happens all the time.

Which is why it cracks me up that there are people out there who are just now discovering that sexism in the tech industry exists, is a time-suck, is demoralizing, makes no sense and must be dismantled. I feel like this isn’t really a new idea, yet Elissa Shevinsky has just changed her position on the matter. The CEO of Glimpse and occasional contributor for Business Insider went from thinking that the sexism in the tech industry didn’t matter to wanting to take down the brogrammer culture.

The reason: Titstare.

Titstare was a very unfunny joke that made it on to a stage at TechCrunch’s Disrupt Hackathon. According to the New Yorker:

On Sunday, two young men from Australia took the stage to demo their new app at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco. They were twenty-eight-year-old Jethro Batts and twenty-four-year-old David Boulton, whose succinct biography on Twitter said, “Staring at your tits.” They were dressed casually—Boulton in a baseball cap, while Batts wore a hoodie, his hair mussed just so. They had some stubble. Their brief presentation took the form of light, cheerful banter: “We’re here to bring you Titstare!” The audience erupted in laughter, as they explained, “Titstare is an app where you take photos of yourself staring at tits.”

Their timing was well-rehearsed, and they set up another joke: “Why, Dave, why?” asked Batts.

“Well, I’ll tell you, Jethro. It’s science, my good friend. Science. Did you know that looking at breasts is directly linked to a good, healthy heart?” replied Boulton.

The comedy continued. “Dave, I think this is the ‘breast’ hack ever,” said Batts.

Boulton concluded: “It’s the breast, most titillating fun you cans have.”

Did I mention that those two developers are responsible for an Australian website that allows you to send customized, mean/abusive postcards?

And they made this presentation while on stage with the aforementioned Adria Richards?

 

Nor is it my girlfriend's. via Geek With Laptop

Nor is it my girlfriend’s. via Geek With Laptop

To TechCrunch’s credit, they responded immediately (same day) with an apology, acknowledging that sexism in the tech industry is a serious problem, and outlining policy changes to ensure they don’t have another Titstare presentation:

Today’s issues resulted from a failure to properly screen our hackathons for inappropriate content ahead of time and establish clear guidelines for these submissions.

Trust us, that changed as soon as we saw what happened at our show. Every presentation is getting a thorough screening from this hackathon onward. Any type of sexism or other discriminatory and/or derogatory speech will not be allowed.

You expect more from us, and we expect more from ourselves. We are sorry.

Which brings me back to Elissa Shevinsky, who hasn’t always thought that sexism in tech was an issue, and who’s been working in and with technology since 2001. You know, originally the idea that someone could go that long in the tech industry without experiencing some crazy, mind-changing sexism seemed funny to me. As in, how-is-that-even-possible-funny, not ha-ha-funny. But as I continued to read Shevinsky’s essay and reflected on my own experiences, I realized that it’s completely possible to so expertly ignore the evidence in front of you until you’re convinced that no problem exists.

Shevinsky acknowledges that fact: “I experienced sexism all the time, but I overlooked it because I was too busy working.”

Next: What happens when we’re all too busy working?

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Freelance writer and fiction author, Geekery Editor for Autostraddle.com and Fiction Editor for qu.ee/r Magazine. Keep up with her at her website.

Ali has written 277 articles for us.

40 Comments

  1. Thumb up 6

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    Wow, just… wow. Enlightening article, Ali. I commend you for all of your efforts to educate the people in your environment. It looks like we have a long way still to go, but it’s all about being a long-distance runner, not a sprinter, when it comes dismantling the patriarchy. :)

  2. Thumb up 2

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    Great article!

    Personally, it’s often not so clear to me. Say I think I’m not being valued properly. Is that even real, or am I imagining it? If it’s real, is it because I’m a woman, or because I’m gay, or just because I have an approach to the workplace that isn’t churn out code and spend all day mired in details? Or maybe I’m the one who is wrong, and I’m not providing the value I should?

    And that’s the real insidiousness of it all. It could be all imaginary, or it could be not stemming from prejudices at all. And if it is, I’ll never really know, and it’s really hard to confront someone about it.

    This shit is hard, yo.

  3. Thumb up 0

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    This reminds me of the video game industry, for obvious reasons. Friends of mine were doing a panel on gender/diversity/etc. and one of them called it the “As A Woman in the Gaming Industry, How Do You Feel About [X]?” panel, in reference to how every question they have to field begins.

  4. Thumb up 4

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    This is a great article! Well written, great content and different perspectives. As a woman who also works in the technology field and who presents as MOC this article hits close to home. I also work on an all male team. Majority of the time the guys are very respectful and awesome. There have been comments that haven’t sat well with me but I am very lucky that the guys I work with are super respectful and receptive to my ideas and opinions. I feel very lucky to work for a company that was co-founded by two amazing women and the company culture is very much one of respect and transparency.The sexism and white male privilege in technology/gaming is so common and infuriating. I like to think I am helping to break down some of that bullshit by being competent and sticking up for myself and my opinions. It still sucks that this is a thing but it really is.

  5. Thumb up 1

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    Ali this is so important. Thank you. I work at a tech company and it’s heartbreaking to see the lack of women who apply. We are a software company and even the organizing (essentially sales) team says they have a much easier time getting men on board. Women reply all the time saying they just don’t “get” technology or are intimidated by it.

    My hope is all these great organizations that are popping up for young women in tech will help, but for women to feel comfortable going into this field, these misogynistic environments cannot be allowed to stand.

  6. Thumb up 4

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    I have a ton of respect for women who love this business enough to stick it out. I just last week finished up a two year stint working in a factory that makes electronics parts (connectors, cables, etc.). I couldn’t take it any more, and now I’m going to substitute teach and take a huge pay cut. I have a degree in creative writing, so it was just a job, and I was just working first in manufacturing, then in quality control, but as I began to ascend the ladder, I noticed just how crappy that industry is.

    First off, I was only ever worth what my immediate superior (always a man) thought I was worth, and my experience on a day to day basis depended wholly on that relationship. Secondly, my first day on the job, an older woman came up to me and told me I was the first woman they’d hired in a LONG TIME, and that was a comment I kept hearing for my first few weeks. And this was just a simple factory job. It just piled up from there. In orientation, the teacher asked if any of us had ever taken apart a calculator or a remote control to look at the circuit board as a kid, and when I said I had, he said, “That’s unusual for a girl!” That kind of crap just kept coming. I was selected to take an extra computer programming class once, and the teacher kept apologizing for saying things he thought might have been sexist because I was in the room (little things like calling us “guys,” which, like most native English speakers I understand is a slang term), and then not batting an eyelash when he made a “my wife, like all women, is such a nag” joke. And more and more I tried to dress more masculine and wear less make-up and the only thing that got me was remarks about how people forgot I was a woman – like, “Oh, I thought it was just us men here! I didn’t even realize you were the only woman.” I couldn’t take it any more. I have loads of respect for any woman who can tough it out, and in even more stifling environments than the one I was in.

  7. Thumb up 12

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    Who is this dude that considers “what is a gigabyte” a hard hitting question? uugh.
    Great piece, Ali. May all of you non-dude tech people have the courage of a thousand drunk kittens. #catwine

  8. Thumb up 4

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    Next up: how to respond to tech-dudebros? I really think my reaction would be to either sock them in their faces or unleash some Choice Swears, but that just gets you the ‘dumb bitch’ reaction and doesn’t help anyone. I wouldn’t know *how* to sit anybody down for a Feminist 101 without getting agitated and stabby. HALP.

    • Thumb up 2

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      So many feelings about this. I experienced the BS of bro-culture at a tech job where every woman in the last 10 years left after less than 2 years. My coworkers even admitted that “women don’t do well here” and they would make fun of every previous employee. I was guaranteed to hear a sexist, racist, homophobic or rape joke EVERY day. It was so infuriating. I loved what I was doing but having to work with these a-holes every day was very very difficult. I’d love to work with or start a company with other women in my field so that I never have to experience that shitstorm ever again. Wishful thinking?

  9. Thumb up 4

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    ali, this is such a brilliant article. i am so frustrated after just reading it, and i do not work in tech at all…as a few people have said above, i am really grateful for the women who stick it out in the environment you describe because while it is not your job to educate (and while i also understand leaving the industry because of the rampant sexism and bro-culture, and don’t mean to shame or undermine anyone who makes that choice either — you’ve gotta do what’s right for you 100%) your presence alone is an educational tool, and the fact that you deal with actual tools on a day to day basis (tools of the dumb sexist dudebro variety, not the kind of tools one might use to YOU KNOW ACTUALLY DO THE JOB YOU ARE TRYING TO DO…) is just icing on the impressive cake. i dunno, i wanna give you all hugs and cocktails and actual means to fight this. i’m not sure what the answer is, but i hope with articles such as this and conversations happening at a more public and frequent rate, we will start to solve the dudebro culture problem in tech.

    • Thumb up 6

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      also this quote from sj sindu really stood out to me:

      “The biggest problem I see with the tech world is that it’s made and marketed itself as the playground for teenage boys who don’t want to grow up. The dress code is casual, employee interaction is relaxed and some tech companies even cater to adults as if they’re grown children (laundry facilities onsite, napping areas, etc.). Professionalization, including cultural and gender sensitivity, is seen as a killjoy. I don’t know how to change that perception, but to me it’s the root cause of the tech industry digging its heels and refusing to progress.”

      i feel like this attitude is prominent in start-up culture in general, not just tech-based start-ups, and it really does make me feel unwelcome as a women. i want fun nice things also, but i don’t want “fun nice things” to translate into “having zero responsibility re: making a workplace safe for ALL humans and acting as though anyone demanding equality and respect for all is some annoying nagging MOM figure.” i’m looking forward to fixing these problems across the board as we move forward, but i do wonder HOW…

      genuinely curious about real life solutions, if you’ve seen something work or have an idea about stuff that could work, respond and share! clearly we have to be the revolution, i’m into it, let’s get to it.

  10. Thumb up 6

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    Thanks for writing about this Ali – it’s so relevant to my life.

    I dropped computer science in high school for geography due to the male teacher continually making sexist remarks – not only about women’s lack of skill re. tech related things in general, but also making comments that served to objectify me personally. When I dropped the subject, I was first in the class. Did not matter to the teacher or the guys who loved bro’ing it up with him in the slightest.

    Also – using just my initials as opposed to my full name which immediately id’s me as a women, got me a lot more interviews when I was applying for work a few years ago. Now I freelance and habitually take a male friend who is also a freelancer along to meetings with potential clients as my ‘business partner’. Much higher rate of landing projects even if he just sits there and says maybe two words. It annoys me that I do this – but to earn an income I need to land projects.

    I hate being a women in the tech industry. It sucks.

  11. Thumb up 1

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    What a great article. I contemplate the tech industry from time to time as a possible future career field. This kind of thing needs to be changed and young women need to be empowered to pursue this field. I’m currently in Mathematics which is also male dominated. It’s very frustrating to have to validate everything I do in order to be taken seriously. Luckily, I have a few women by my side at grad school and together we hold our own in our program.

    Basically any field that marginalizes women in this manner need to be changed. ASAP.

  12. Thumb up 4

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    This is awesome. I have so much respect and admiration for you women/otherwise identified people who are representing us in the tech world. I am so sorry that you have to fight these bullshit battles in an industry that so undermines your value.

    Thank you for writing this Ali.

  13. Thumb up 3

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    Great article. It shows all of the great stuff I get to look forward to. I’m transgender and just getting ready to start the transition process. I’ve seen a lot of sexism in the industry, and while it wasn’t directed directly at me, it still stung. Nothing like being around a bunch of guys who think they are just talking to a bunch of guys with no women around. Luckily where I work at now isn’t too bad, but I still hear the occasional sexist joke that makes me want to slap someone. I’m currently a well respected person on my team, but after transition, it will be interesting to see how much that changes…

  14. Thumb up 3

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    One time I interviewed a woman video game developer for a story and I asked her if she had experienced sexism in her industry. I thought she was going to say yes and tell me all the examples of the things she’s experienced. But that wasn’t the case. Yes she admitted to sexist things happening to her, but she kinda just dismissed the sexist things as being a “boys will be boys” situation and basically told me that if women can’t hang with these kind of assholes then they wouldn’t be successful in the video game industry. This was all very disheartening and frustrating to hear. I thought she would have been appalled and would have said something over the years to her male colleagues. But I guess she just did what she had to do to survive.

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      For me, this is the most upsetting part of sexism in the tech and gaming industries: because they’re seen as boys’ clubs, many women in those industries feel that they have to suck it up and take it or even excuse sexist behavior and standards. As the interloper, a woman isn’t allowed to try to change things and the way to move up is to either keep quiet or actively affirm sexism, homophobia, racism, etc., undermining the complaints of anyone brave enough to break from the norm. The point the article makes about the never-grow-up aspect of the tech and gaming industries is also really relevant and saddening to me.

  15. Thumb up 1

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    ali this is incredible! i’m so glad you’re articulating all these things, and i hope it helps other people to talk about and hopefully start noticing them so we can start fixing them.

  16. Thumb up 1

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    This is such a great article. That titstare story makes me want to barf. And what’s up with the guy who quizzed you on gigabytes and RAM? These stories would seem absolutely unbelievable if I didn’t see similar things all the time.

  17. Thumb up 3

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    I recently just transferred from a women’s college to a co-ed university. Going from all-female math, physics, and computer-science classes (In fact, the only courses I ever had that had men enrolled were some of my French and Music courses) to classes where I was one of three to five women was a huge shock. And this is at a university that is still 65% female. Math majors? Mostly female. Nursing and pre-med majors? Mostly female. Computer Science and Physics? Yeah, right. I have had one female professor and that was for a Philosophy course.
    I knew, of course, from CompSci and AP Physics classes in highschool that there was going to be a significant lack of women in my field, that was part of the reason for going to a women’s college in the first place.
    I tend to talk a lot in class. My professors appreciate it, and I hate to have conversation lag. Alright, maybe I’m a know-it-all sometimes, but so what? What bugs me the most though, is that the girls in my classes seem more bothered by it than the guys are.
    Because girls aren’t supposed to talk in class right? Girls are quiet-smart. Not loud-smart.
    I don’t know where I’m going with this, but this article really resonated with me and I’m too angry about everything right now to get my thoughts in order properly. (Plus, techie here, not great with words)

  18. Thumb up 0

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    I’m a technical writer. Technical writing is interesting because it is one of the only technical fields that is dominated by women. (I believe it’s just over 50/50 in the general population, but at my current office we have one male technical writer and six female technical writers!) Unfortunately, I think this has lead to a lot of engineers (very much a male-dominated field, in my experience) to see us as a nuisance rather than a partner.

    I remember once early in my career I went to ask a subject-matter expert some questions. He was very flippant and blew me off, telling me that the information didn’t yet exist. Then he went to my boss and complained that I hadn’t written the document. We went through this cycles a few time before my boss sent me down with one of my male colleagues. Suddenly, all the answers existed. My colleague hadn’t asked anything differently than I had. That’s when I realized that sexism is still a huge problem, especially in product development.

    My current job is a little better than the last one, but not by much. I nodded vigorously at Bren’s comment about someone else stating an idea I just said and suddenly he’s a genius. I sit on a number of cross-functional teams for different projects, and usually I am one of only 2-3 women in the room (out of at least a dozen people). That’s not because my company doesn’t employ female engineers – most of them are just juniors.

    I’ve also been in a meeting where a male presenter treated his co-presenter – a flipping VICE PRESIDENT in our company – as his PA.

    Recently we had a Q&A session with the COO of the company to discuss questions that we could pose anonymously through the intranet. More than one of us asked about the promotion of women within the company, especially looking at the proportion of men to women in upper management. We were told that “we promote based on merit.” I don’t understand how anyone with a brain can look at that statement and think, well, you’ve just told us all that you think men have more merit than women. FANTASTIC.

    My wife works in IT and while her stories aren’t mine to tell, believe me when I say that she has some shockers too. Misogyny is live and well, folks.

  19. Thumb up 1

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    Great article! I discussed it with a (male) friend of mine who works in IT. He validated for me that unfortunately this stuff does go on.

    Maybe because there are so few women in IT, some type of “othering” phenomenon is occurring – the men start to think women are like some other species. Hence, the unfortunate differential treatment.

    The ultimate solution might be to get a lot more women working in IT, but it does not seem like a very welcoming space to begin with. Bit of a vicious cycle.

  20. Thumb up 0

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    Great article! I recently was supposed to go into a recent conference about being Out in a tech field and I’m wondering where/if there are conferences that relate to being a women in the tech field. I just got back from a debate tournament, so I am completely in the frame work of discourse and otherizing and this article is a perfect way to keep me in the mindset.

  21. Thumb up 0

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    Awesome stuff. I have the same problem in almost the opposite field (I work as a farm labourer) and I absolutely relate to the woman who felt like, because she wasn’t openly discriminated against, that she became tacitly involved in the sexism against other women, letting it occur because she was allowed in the club house without realising there shouldn’t be a clubhouse. I may have beaten it into the boys that telling me I would make a good farmer’s wife isn’t a compliment, but I’m definitely guilty of letting sexism slide if it isn’t aimed at me. Very though provoking.

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    thanks ali, great article!

    i can very much relate to the whole being masculine-presenting and accepted into the boys club. it’s weird, being the one exception. also, then setting super high standards for yourself because you feel like you have to prove your worth/outperform the guys. it sucks.
    on a more positive note, i do very much believe in role models/setting a positive example, so the more of us stick it out, the better it will be for a next generation, hopefully

  23. Thumb up 0

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    Our Aerospace corporation has beeen very proactive in advancing women engineers but even so, when we get together at lunch and talk the discussion will segue to how we see there is still a testosterone driven need for men to “hold our hand” through projects. I have a great liberal minded boss, but even he will talk over me or discount my input at our weekly QA engineering meetings and over time I have been handed on more administrative duties and pushed out of process research. And I transistioned at work! Yes, most of the group, including my boss, know I came to the company as a “guy” and over time I see first hand the frustration of working with those who have male priviledge.

    Lawrence Summmers speaks for the male majority, whether they would admit it or not. Sure he taught at Harvard and was a Clinton cabinet member, but there is a mindset among men that they are superior in hard sciences.

    Are there any Mout Holyoke grads among us who may disagree?

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    I don’t even technically work in the tech industry. I had a communications position in a university’s IT department for two years and now I work in education. I’m also really into gaming, computers, and social media. Even so, it was appalling the amount of times I told people I worked for IT and their faces rearranged into expressions of shock and awe. Of course, then I would explain that I worked in marketing/communications and it would reaffirm all their sexist stereotypes, which I hated. So then, to burst their little sexist bubbles, I would tell them how much I love Skyrim and kissing ladies. The satisfaction was slight but I guess I’ll take what I can get.

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